So starting next week, I’ll be posting session vlogs on Mondays, and usable scenes, places, NPCs, etc. from my game on Thursdays. See you there!
We’ve all had that player who writes up a three page character background and emails it to us. For me, it’s exciting that he’s that invested in my game… but it’s also intimidating. What if I can’t work his story into my campaign? More to the point, how can I work his story into a campaign I’ve already got planned?
The question of whose ideas should be driving the story – yours or your players’ – is a neverending struggle. You shouldn’t let player whims control everything – that’s a mistake I learned the hard way (Too Many Player Ideas, Ad Lib Overdose). But at the same time, character’s stories should be driving the adventure, because players put time into creating them and that’s what they’re here to play.
It’s not Either/Or
Thinking in terms of Either/Or dooms you from the beginning. If you claim the authority to toss player ideas aside, the game becomes boring; if you feel like you have to let the players overwrite your ideas, the game becomes directionless.
Instead, think of your campaign notes as the basic outline. You’ve got a broad perspective of the gameworld, you know what’s hiding around all the corners, and you’ve put time into creating a story that you know will be fun – if the players will just trust you enough to “go along” with it.
You do not have to set your outline aside.
Rather, players’ character stories (and any other ideas they may contribute about the game world, game scale, locations, or NPCs) function as added detail in your story. Does that mean they’re limited to making “cosmetic” changes on top of what you’ve got planned? Absolutely not.
The trick is – you’re painting the broad strokes of the picture. And they’re filling in the fine strokes. Your work so far gives them a strong framework where they can express themselves, and their detail work brings your campaign to life. Your outline – even if it’s non-negotiable in some places – is still just an outline.
Rightly understood, the player-GM partnership is not 50/50 – that’s still Either/Or thinking. The game is best when both of you are giving 100%; they’re playing what they wanted to play, and you’re running what you wanted to run.
In your broad strokes, be sure to write something you know your group will like. That way, player creativity gets a say in even the foundational levels of your campaign.
Also, if a player suggestion makes you realize you’ve been painting some fine details into your outline (which is a great thing thing to be doing since you don’t always know when and where player creativity is going to kick in!), just let it go and fall back on your broad strokes. Because you’ve already decided you don’t have to give those up, you can be willing to let go of all but the strongest stuff.
A recent example of this: I’m planned a campaign where the PCs were a boy band and also superheroes (I know, right?). One player wanted to have a background in hard rock instead, so during the proto session he suggested that the PCs all be from different bands. Now, for story reasons, I wanted them to be a single team – both as supers, and on stage. So we came up with the compromise that this was a “fusion” band with members from various backgrounds, brought together by producers who wanted to appeal to the widest demographic possible. Suddenly my gameworld had corporations that control everything, and an unbelievably dimwitted populace. Like I say: player ideas bring your campaign to life.